University of Colorado Boulder. Photo by apasciuto

After Racist Social Media Posts, CU Boulder Students Say the University Must Take Stronger Action

A recent rash of racist social media posts targeting the Black community from prospective and current University of Colorado Boulder students made incoming freshman Kaia Willett worry about his decision.

Willett, 18, a Boulder Prep High School graduate, had decided to stay in his hometown after the coronavirus pandemic cancelled his visit to Morehouse College, an Atlanta-based historically black college. He said the racist social media posts from current and prospective CU Boulder students made him think twice.

“Part of me thinks that attending Morehouse would have been a better experience for me all around,” Willett said.

In response to the posts, University of Colorado Boulder officials released a statement condemning the actions and added that the community must set guidelines for what it means to be anti-racist. 

But a diverse group of students feel the response from the school, whose enrollment is 68% white, doesn’t lay out actions to deter future racism or address an environment unwelcoming for students of color. And with the Black Lives Matters protests across the country after the death of George Floyd — a Black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer — they feel it is the right time for the university to do more by taking a zero tolerance stance on racism.

The call follows the University of Denver response to a racist comment from a prospective student. It is rescinding that student’s offer.

CU Boulder spokeswoman Deborah Mendez-Wilson said in an email that the school has drawn up a plan to create a more welcoming atmosphere for all students. But the plan hasn’t been fully put into place yet.

“We acknowledge that we have not made enough progress and are committed to implementing major portions of this plan in the fall,” she said.

Public schools across the country, including at CU Boulder, also say they are limited in how they react because racist statements fall under free speech. 

However, if a student creates a hostile environment or targets other students, the university could take action against that student, officials said.

CU Boulder students said racist slurs and posts pass that threshold and should lead to discipline.

CU Boulder Black Student Alliance interim Vice President Ruth Woldemichael said racist remarks and social media posts create a dangerous environment for fellow Black students.

“I think that type of language and rhetoric is hostile automatically,” Woldemichael said.

Racist acts and social media posts have cropped up in the last year in Boulder, as well as at colleges in Colorado and across the country.

How public schools respond to and discipline students making racist comments has varied.

Last year, four white Colorado State University students posted on social media in blackface. The caption read “Wakanda forevaa,” in reference to the “Black Panther” film. College students in blackface also popped up in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Massachusetts.

Private schools like the University of Denver have more leeway in disciplining students for misconduct.  Along with the University of Denver, Xavier and Marquette universities have responded to students’ racist comments by disenrolling them.

CU Boulder officials said they are bound by laws and rules that govern public schools. A student engaging in racist comments or posts first is referred to the equity and compliance office, which may make an informal resolution, formal adjudication, or take other action. The office must provide a fair process for all students.

Willett said no school should tolerate racism. 

Kaia Willett, 18, is an incoming freshman at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“I think that [a school] shouldn’t want students that have that kind of mentality and that post that kind of stuff,” Willett said.

Woldemichael said she wants CU officials to make progress in hiring more diverse faculty and putting in place mental health resources for students

She also said the school must address the overall culture on campus. Some students have told her that they’ve felt excluded at events by some white students and that others have reported racial slurs targeting them. In October, a white woman harassed Black students studying at the engineering center.

Woldemichael is especially frustrated that CU Boulder has been slow to act. She pushed for quicker action in the late-May case of a CU Boulder cheerleader who posted on social media that “the black ppl are trying to rape me.”

The school’s student newspaper CU Independent reported the student was removed from the cheerleading team. Mendez-Wilson said privacy laws prohibit the school from releasing information about further action against students.

Ultimately, Woldemichael said she hasn’t seen CU Boulder do enough to deter students from racist acts.

“Our minds matter, our mental health matters, our safety matters,” Woldemichael said. “So expel and remove students that are encouraging violent rhetoric.”

If stronger action isn’t taken, Willett said diverse students will continue to look at CU Boulder as a place that’s not for them. With his future set, however, he said he is going to do everything he can to fight against racism at the school.

“I’m going to work tirelessly to make it a safe space, and a good place, for myself and for future students who attend there,” Willett said.

Jason Gonzales covers higher education for Chalkbeat Colorado, in partnership with Open Campus.

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